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Eduardo Salcedo-Albarán has been called ‘the crime-fighting philosopher’ for using philosophy to make sense of organized crime. He has worked for a range of organisations including the Colombian government, Global Integrity, and Transparency International. Nick Chester asks him about using philosophy to combat corruption.
Can you start by saying a bit about your background in philosophy?
My undergraduate studies were in philosophy. My main philosophical interests are analytical philosophy, philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, and Artificial Intelligence. Since the beginning, I felt those philosophical areas offered practical options for fixing social problems. The more [the philosophers of language and mind] Russell, Wittgenstein, Ryle, Fodor, Searle and Dennett I read, the more I was convinced that several social problems could be avoided or fixed through clarity in our language and our thinking processes. I saw this as a therapeutic option while living in the chaotic, violent and corrupt environment of Bogota, Colombia. Unfortunately, people think that philosophy is unpractical, which is a shame, because there is nothing more practical and powerful than interpreting the world in a clear way without dogmas.
I’m basically a philosopher trying to understand the world through empirical observation, which is what scientists do. I cannot really tell the difference between my philosophical and my scientific mind.
How can philosophy be used to fight corruption?
Photo © David Sastre 2016
It’s easy to understand that we share a limited amount of natural and public resources, and that we are psychologically connected with other humans. As Homo sapiens, our brains are all similar, so we share the same epistemological universe – we all know about it in the same way – and therefore we are connected. We almost automatically simulate and feel others’ feelings. Therefore, it makes sense to constantly improve the happiness and quality of life of people around us, seeking the equilibrium between our and their happiness. Confronting corruption and crime is a about pursuing that equilibrium.
Given the inherent desire that people have to act according to their personal biases, do you think there’s any such thing as a truly non-corrupt society?
No, there is no such thing, because breaking rules is inherent to our species – which is not entirely negative, since rule-breaking is the genesis of positive creativity and change. As humans, we don’t live in mental stasis, but constantly seek change. Unfortunately, negative social effects happen when rule-breakers constantly take the path of not only breaking paradigms and traditions, but also breaking basic laws.
Saint Augustine argued that corruption means a deprivation of something originally good has occurred. Do you think this concept can be applied to the corruption of legal and institutional systems, or do you think the evil created there is more than the removal of original goodness from those systems?
Unfortunately, most institutions are designed as metaphysical entelechies – as abstract good ideas about how society should behave. However, when those institutions are then created, the rule-breaking characteristic of the human mind quickly inserts corruption.
Judicial and legal systems are obviously designed to deal with crime; but the influence of corruption and crime is often omitted when other economic and social institutions are designed. For instance, it is generally accepted that decentralized institutions are good for democracy. However, in some countries, criminal groups use decentralized institutions. Narco-paramilitary groups ended up managing the health system in Colombian municipalities at the beginning of this century, and drug trafficking networks use municipal police bodies across Mexico.
The process of designing perfect institutions that are later corrupted in practice is partially the result of assuming that human actions are always rational and almost perfect. I think this is our liberal, hyper-rational, Kantian heritage. We design social institutions for angels, and that’s a mistake criminals love. As a result, in certain societies, originally good institutions are used to create great evil through massive victimization and crimes against humanity, despite the fact that those societies institutions are perfectly designed on paper. There are several examples across South and Central America or West Africa where constitutions and originally good laws are manipulated by criminal networks to generate massive human suffering, creating evil that goes beyond the simple removal of goodness.
Given that philosophy makes use of logic, and criminals often act in a chaotic and illogical manner, do you think the former can be used to help make sense of the latter?
Absolutely. First, because logic is the main tool for understanding our social world, and crime is a social phenomenon. Second, because crime is not only and always chaotic. Crime generates social chaos, but the most sophisticated criminals do not behave in a chaotic way. Successful criminals are highly trained, control their emotions, and maximize profits while minimizing costs and risks. My first book in Spanish, for instance, was about analysing crime in Colombia as a rational behaviour.
You’ve contested the idea that crime is primarily about the actions of individuals. Can you say a bit about that?
Judicial systems – penal codes and penal institutions – are often designed to investigate, prosecute and judge crimes that involve a single victim or a small number of victims, and a single or small number of victimizers. However, in some societies, massive human victimization happens through systemic crimes, such as the forced displacement of population, massive sexual violence against women, or the forced recruitment of children. Those situations are generated by criminal systems, not by an individual.
The idea that crime is only about the action of individuals is naïve and has negative effects. Policy-makers and enforcement agents focus resources on chasing individual criminals – usually the crime lord of the moment – while in reality, complex networks of bankers, politicians, and public servants sustain crime. With this in mind, serious and harmful crime is not only about the action of individuals or pure criminals, but about the action of hundreds or thousands of ‘grey agents’ who operate within otherwise lawful institutions.
Our brains have a limit on the size of the social networks we can be comfortably familiar with. This is known as Dunbar’s number: the number of individuals and roles we can identify in our social network is about 150-200. Macro-criminal networks, such as are found in transitional justice trials, are networks in which thousands of individuals interact, so without computational tools we cannot understand them. It’s almost impossible for a single investigator, attorney, or judge, to understand those situations.
You’re known for your use of AI in investigating macro-criminal networks. Can a computer ever be truly intelligent, and would there be any way of knowing it is?
We can only be sure of our own consciousness, in the first person; we can never be sure about the consciousness of another human being, or a robot. We just infer consciousness, anthropomorphize other beings, and interact with them. In the long term, as we increasingly interact with AIs, and those intelligences penetrate deeper into our web of knowledge and language, we’ll progressively anthropomorphize them, assume they have consciousness, and feel more empathy towards them. Maybe at that point we’ll take for granted the idea that they are intelligent.
It’s arguable that in some circumstances businesses act in ways that are just as immoral as organized crime, but do so legally – for example, clothing companies paying workers in developing nations extremely low sums. Do you think crime and corruption have more of a negative impact than these immoral but legal businesses?
Although law is the core of the modern state, it is a fragile tool that can be used and manipulated by powerful economic or criminal groups. Pushing legislation to lower the minimum wage in a poor country through lobbying or bribery is immoral, just as it’s immoral to pay ridiculously low wages while generating huge profits. Powerful corporations can therefore generate social suffering while obeying the laws. However, not only businesses but also politicians and public servants often engage in immoral but lawful activities. When politicians, public servants, and private actors join with professional criminals to use and manipulate institutions, negative structural effects happen – in those cases, even massive human victimization ends up being protected by law. In Colombia, for instance, almost a half of active national legislators between 2002 and 2006 established agreements with narco-paramilitary commanders. The negative structural effects on our society and the architecture of the state remain uncalculated.
A lot of the organized crime networks you investigated in your book Drug Trafficking, Corruption and States (2015, co-written with Luis Jorge Garay-Salamanca) arose in deprived communities. Do you think poverty can ever truly justify crime or mitigate criminal activity?
Poverty usually facilitates crime, especially when young people face social inequality and a lack of opportunities. In those circumstances, crime becomes a life option. However, this doesn’t mean that poverty always causes crime. Poor indigenous societies, for instance, usually do not develop the sophisticated criminal technology found in countries like Mexico or Colombia. Countries with low GDP also do not always develop sophisticated crime. However, in Mexico and Colombia, for instance, poverty meets permanent social inequality, corrupt political elites, lack of legal opportunities, and plenty of economic profits provided by drug trafficking. This combination stimulated the evolution of criminal technology that constantly reinforces itself. Like any technology, it’s almost impossible to stop the evolution of criminal technology.
Finally, what do you see as the future role of philosophy in combating corruption and crime?
Philosophers often isolate themselves, but they also provide the most intense options for understanding the world. Although science is free of dogmas, scientists often get too compromised by and with their own scientific fields. Economists tend to interpret the world through economic methodologies and variables, and the same happens with sociologists, psychologists, et cetera. As a result, academia quickly arrives at a solipsistic state in which economists only talk and share findings with economists, psychologists with psychologists, et cetera. Since the world is not fragmented into scientific fields, hyper-fragmented scientific explanations are hyper-limited, and sometimes useless. In this situation, philosophy provides radical freedom of thought – a real philosopher doesn’t use a particular set of variables or defend a particular set of methodologies, a real philosopher enjoys a radical freedom to ask and answer in unprecedented ways. Society would benefit from scientists and philosophers asking the questions that only free minds can ask.
• Nick Chester is a freelance journalist and also a regular writer for arts, culture, and news magazine Vice.